Handel's 'Messiah' an Easter tradition for Messiah Choral Society
From March 23 to 27, 1742, in the Dublin, Ireland, periodical Faulkner’s Journal, this notice appeared: “For Relief of the Prisoners in the several Gaols, and for the Support of Mercer’s Hospital in Stephen’s-street, and of the Charitable Infirmary on the Inn’s Quay, on Monday the 12th of April, will be performed at the Musick Hall in Fishamble-street, Mr. Handel’s new Grand Oratorio, called the MESSIAH, in which the Gentlemen of the Choirs of both Cathedrals will assist, with some Concertos on the Organ, by Mr. Handel. Tickets to be had at the Musick Hall, and at Mr. Neal’s in Christ Churchyard, at half a Guinea each.”
(The performance actually took place on April 13, to accommodate “several persons of distinction.”)
Just days shy of the 275th anniversary of that historic concert — the world premiere of what is widely considered the pinnacle of Baroque music and among the greatest works in the Western musical canon — on Palm Sunday in the sanctuary of the First United Methodist Church, Scott Betts was reminding dozens of singers that singing is breathing.
“And breathing takes a little bit of movement now and then,” he added, lacing his fingers together and pushing his palms out from his chest toward the back of the Grand Junction sanctuary. He asked the performers to do the same stretch, a group that ranged in age from teens to those well into their 80s.
Then, fingers still laced, palms toward the ceiling, then to one side and the other, with Betts encouraging, “Breathe into those intercostals,” adding as an aside that intercostals “are what you eat when you go to Rib City.”
That led to the vocal warm-ups, including a series of “mee may mah mow moos” and “double bub bub bub bubble gums” in light contrast to the seriousness of what they were about to sing, the depth and beauty of the story of Jesus Christ’s birth, death and resurrection set to music.
“Do you feel ready?” Betts finally asked, and the singers said they did.
As members of the Messiah Choral Society chorus, they were preparing for the 13th annual performance of Handel’s “Messiah,” which will be at 2:30 p.m. today in the Grand Junction High School auditorium and which has become a Grand Valley Easter tradition.
“It’s a musical gift,” said Ed Arnos, who founded the Messiah Choral Society (mcsgj.org) and was inspired by the Handel and Haydn Society (handelandhaydn.org) to stage annual “Messiah” performances. He also credits the Messiah Choral Society of Central Florida for the idea of making the performances free to the public.
“Donors finance our budget,” he said, “and because of that we’ve been able to bring in exceptional singers.”
This year’s performance of the complete “Messiah,” which Arnos estimated requires $13,000 in cash and 5,500 hours of volunteer time to produce, will feature San Francisco-based soprano soloist Winnie Nieh (winnienieh.com), who has performed around the world; tenor soloist Frank Laucerica (franklaucericatenor.com), a Northwestern University student; alto soloist Stefanie Anduri, a music lecturer at Colorado Mesa University; and bass soloist Jordan Christie, a senior studying vocal performance at CMU.
Arnos said donations allow the Messiah Choral Society to bring in guest soloists, with whom they connect via yaptracker.com, a website that permits producers of musical events to advertise their works and pay scale and connect with performers.
Christie, who is performing for the first time with the choral society, said he participated in the “Messiah” sing-along held annually in December, which led to his being named a soloist for this year’s Easter performance.
“The bass solo music in the ‘Messiah’ is very dynamic in terms of its range and so it’s kind of challenging, especially for me being a lower baritone or a bass baritone,” Christie explained. “It’s challenging to stay relaxed throughout the whole entire performance and still give a genuine performance and not sound exhausted. For me it is challenging music, but it’s more exciting if I can represent the music in a more artistic way.”
An oratorio such as “Messiah” can be a challenge because of its familiarity, Christie said.
It is a work familiar to and beloved by many, so performers must walk a fine line between presenting music that the audience may know intimately and expect to hear as it was written, and giving it their own artistic interpretation.
“There are so many different interpretations of this piece,” explained Betts, who retired as a choir and orchestra director and music teacher from Redlands Middle School and is conducting “Messiah” for the second consecutive year. “The choral society believes in a purist approach, but even with that there’s so much debate about what did Handel mean with this or with that? There’s been so much written on it, it’s been studied so much, so I don’t go out of my way to do anything different or unique.”
The music is dynamic enough that each practice, each performance, reveals a previously undiscovered nuance, said soprano chorus singer Bernadette Christiansen, who organizes the annual “Messiah” sing-along in December.
“We’re kind of addicted to it,” she admitted. “It never gets boring, and it’s such a challenging piece that it takes years to really know the music. Even when you feel like you know it, you’re always finding something new in it.”
The chorus, which features about 90 singers who will be accompanied by a 19-member orchestra, has been practicing since January with Jim Werner, choral society artistic director. Singers are recruited not only from the sing-along, but from area churches and choirs, and have come together on Sunday afternoons to practice the intricate, layered Baroque harmonies.
“I’m still spending an hour, two hours a day on it, besides the practices,” said bass chorus singer Fred Bowden, performing for the first time with the choral society. “There are a lot of notes and you’ve got to want to do it.
“I was having trouble with it the first time I was singing it, and I was talking with an old friend of mine who had sung professionally in Seattle. I said, I’m really having a lot of trouble with this, are there any scales I can learn to do this better? And he said, none better than there, and tapped the book I was holding, which was the full score of the ‘Messiah’.”
Despite the challenges of Handel’s music and the libretto written by Handel’s friend Charles Jennens, there is a celestial transcendence in them that hasn’t dimmed. From the first orchestral notes — played grave, per Handel’s score — to the first “Comfort ye!” sung by the tenor soloist, to the fourth part, when the altos lead the rest of chorus with, “And the glory, the glory of the Lord.”
Through the Palm Sunday practice, Betts gave advice and direction as the chorus members, accompanied by Misty Sothers, danced their gazes between Betts and their scores.
“One thing that most choirs do,” Betts told them after “For Unto Us a Child Is Born,” “is, you guys have worked very hard, Jim Werner has worked you very hard in these past several weeks and you know these parts. And there’s this look of concentration on your faces — I won’t screw up, I won’t screw up — when you’re singing words like wonderful and counselor. Now work on communicating what you’re singing. I want to see some joy on your faces!”
And so there was joy, in the enunciated T’s at the end of every utterance of “light,” in the call and response of “goodwill,” in Betts’ reminders to the singers to trust themselves and trust the music, in the ecstatic proclamations of hallelujah.